Bioterrorism, pandemics spur security devices' development in Pa.The race to develop reliable ways to detect and identify biological and chemical threats is bearing fruit for entrepreneurs
By Debra Erdley
The Pittsburgh Tribune Review
PITTSBURGH — Nearly a decade after it kicked into high gear with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the race to develop reliable ways to detect and identify biological and chemical threats is bearing fruit for Pittsburgh entrepreneurs.
Kevin Hutchinson, president and chief executive officer of Health Monitoring Systems Inc., a start-up company in the Riverside Innovation Center on Pittsburgh's North Shore, said the concept for his company's EpiCenter grew out of research done at the University of Pittsburgh.
EpiCenter, a monitoring system now used in about 350 hospitals in 15 states, collects and monitors hospital data for public health systems. It flags conditions and patterns to give early alerts to potential public health threats or bioterrorism. In 2007, when there was a national botulism outbreak, Hutchinson said EpiCenter detected early that there was an unusual trend in hospital admissions.
Although the company is small, Hutchinson said he sees a great demand for the technology it began offering four years ago.
"What we're seeing now is a need for active surveillance. The challenge to public health is so dynamic, we don't know what will come next. We provide a rapid turnaround to what's actually happening in a community," Hutchinson said.
Several miles north in the UPARC Center in Harmar, Keith LeJeune of Icx Technologies Inc. is part of the race to develop a small, reliable device that can collect, detect and identify chemical or biological threats.
LeJeune, who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, and Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh started Agentase in 1999, a company that tapped technology developed in Pittsburgh to produce sensors that detect chemical weapons for the military.
Five years later, Agentase was acquired by Icx, a publicly owned corporation with 850 employees at sites in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Today, LeJeune is general manager of ICX ChemBio Defense and oversees work on chemical and biological sensors in Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, Baltimore and La Jolla, Calif.
"In Pittsburgh, our work is on chemical defense. Ninety percent of it is military based, or it is directed to first responders, hazardous materials teams, firefighters," LeJeune said.
His group, which includes about 100 people, recently marked a milestone when their sensors were deployed in Boston's subway system. Although the company has done studies in other locations, the Boston project marked the first time government officials openly discussed such technology.
"It draws in the air and looks for particulates, then interrogates them with a laser and reads back the fluorescence coming off of the particulates. The sensors can determine if it is biological in nature or dust. If it's biological, the sensor takes a big gulp and analyzes it to see if it's anthrax. It's continuously monitoring the air and can detect a threat in seconds," LeJeune said.
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